Can “listen(ing) to great singers” improve your playing and that of your students?


The Power of Pedagogy

In arts education, students must be taught to create, not imitate.

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz in 1936.ENLARGE
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz in 1936. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

All musicians, even the most gifted ones, need instruction—there are no virgin births, at least not in the modern era. Instruction is the driving force behind any God-given talent’s success.

But teaching is about more than simply telling a student what to do and not do. It is surely one of the most demanding as well as important vocations of all. Parent, instructor, friend, diagnostician—these are some of the things a great teacher must be.

Yet it is also a vocation that is immensely satisfying as one watches a talent grow. I know. For in addition to my career as a concert pianist I have been teaching piano since I was in my 20s.

To me, the most important challenge a teacher must confront is keeping an open mind. One must convey knowledge and artistry without overpowering a student’s sense of self. That talented “self” can develop only when he or she is not over-taught. One must know when to teach and when not to teach.

Many things that I was taught I use in my own teaching. I acquired this particular insight from the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, with whom I worked in the 1940s: “Something is not right,” he would say. “Please think about it, then work on it. Bring it to me next week.” It put the responsibility squarely into my hands. At first, it was a difficult discipline, but how very much it helped me to grow and gain confidence. It’s important that talented students try to work out certain problems by themselves. Of course, the more talented the student, the more effective the results of that advice. This tells us something else about teaching—that it is a two-way street.

In my own teaching, I’ve taken Horowitz’s idea one step further. I end nearly every lesson saying, “If any of my interpretive ideas don’t feel right, please disregard them.”

Mr. Janis is a world-renowned concert pianist particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

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